Read what I own – update (and Marie Kondo)

It’s now over three weeks since I started my “Read what I Own” resolution- challenge (the outlines of which can be found here). Since explaining what I was planning to do, I’ve had some odd reactions on the old social media.

Some people reacted to the picture of the big pile of books by my bed that I posted on Twitter with comments on what I should or shouldn’t be reading – which is a guaranteed way to wind me up, particularly if said person is a bloke (it’s pretty much always a bloke) who has never met me and therefore has no insight into my particular interests. From a book historian point of view, these exchanges are of interest because it signals how book reading, that paradigmatic mark of being a loner or an introvert or of serious-mindedness, is so often far more public and performative and judgement-laced than we care to admit. Obviously, the fact that I’m blogging about my reading is making my reading more performative than usual at the moment. But weighing in on someone else’s reading choices is not something I’m comfortable doing outside of my close group of friends – and advising students on essay reading (there’s a lot of crap out there about early modern French kings). And although I didn’t think I felt judged by these strangers, I did feel… intruded upon. Something to think on further.

Some people got in touch to say they had too wanted to read more of the things they already owned but didn’t think they could give up buying new books. To them I say – no problem. This is my challenge to myself. I’m not asking or expecting anyone to do it with me. And please don’t think I am going to judge you if you buy a book. I’m far too busy trying not to judge myself to judge anyone else. Do what makes you happy. My books were stressing me out, so I wasn’t happy. Hence, the challenge.

And then there was the wild card. I started doing this *just* as Marie Kondo’s Netflix show debuted, and social media seemed to erupt between people furious at the very notion that someone might suggest they throw away books, and people adamant that the people not throwing way their books were using said books as some kind of stand-in for an actual personality… it got testy.

I’ve been watching the show. I am the daughter of someone who could give Marie Kondo a real run for her money (love you, Mama B!) and someone who is …. very much not like that in any way, shape or form (love you too, Papa B). I always want to live in a beautifully tidy home, but as soon as I get busy, tidiness goes out of the window. And my office is, as has been noted by friends, colleagues and students, where paper goes to die. So I am prime Kondo target audience.

I still have an episode and a half to go. Maybe it all goes off the rails then, but so far, all I’ve seen is MK encouraging people to think carefully about what they hold on to and why, including books. And that for herself, about 30 books was ok. Maybe I am missing something from the book (oh, crikey, am I going to have to buy Marie Kondo as one of my books? To see what she says about getting rid of books?) but that doesn’t seem so dreadful to me. Her whole thing is do things bring you joy – if the books bring you joy, then go for it. If they don’t, then let them go. I do have one book which I hate but which I cannot bear to let go because I am worried someone else will buy it making the same assumptions I did – that will have to be a separate blog post though.

How is the actual challenge going, you might want to know. Pretty well so far. I’ve read four and a half books in three weeks. I was on a research trip for two of those weeks, which basically means intense reading in the library most days, and so reading for fun takes a bit of a nose dive – hence Kondo watching. But so far I’ve read:

  • Peter Furtado (ed), Histories of Nations – a collection of (mainly) scholars reflecting on how the history of their country has been handled. Some really good essays, some really odd ones, not great gender balance and some exasperating omissions. A reminder to properly check the contents and contributors before buying. I picked it up in Waterstones before Christmas when I was throwing money around left right and centre.
  • Carolyn Steedman, Dust – something I’d seen discussed on twitter but hadn’t read. A really thought provoking reflection on the Archive, memory, scholarship and all kinds of things. I really liked the bits about what it is like to do archive work in small provincial towns. I’ll go back to this again for sure.
  • Colin Jones, The Smile Revolution in Eighteenth-Century France – a Christmas present from Papa B a few years ago after Jones gave a public lecture at Leeds. The kind of history I want to write, covering everything from public life on the Pont Neuf to advances in dentistry and the changing expectations of people living through revolutions. I’ve actually recommended it to my dentist since I got back and she’s going to tell me how she enjoys it!
  • At this point, I started to read Daniel Roche’s The People of Paris, which I’ve dipped into many times, and have been saving to read in full at some point. But it was the end of my trip, I was quite frazzled, I’d just finished the Jones, and although I really enjoyed the two forewards, being as they were academic calls to arms, I just couldn’t get past the start of chapter one. Too much eighteenth century. Not the right time for that one. I’ll come back to it. Instead, I went for
    • Louisa Jewell, Wire your Brain for Confidence: The Science of Conquering Self-Doubt. Not sure when I got this – it was on my kindle. It will either have been a sale purchase or something I picked up as a recommendation from a magazine. It was fine – lots of exercises that I will probably go back and do, a fair amount of naming traits I could definitely recognise in myself – but much less “science” than I was perhaps expecting.
  • And now I am reading Nick Hunt’s Where the Wild Winds Are: Walking Europe’s Winds from the Pennines to Provence. I think I got this after reading Robert McFarlane’s The Old Ways last year. I love walking as much as I love reading, although RF did annoy me in some places (was someone supporting his wife and kids as he decided to carry on walking after breaking his ribs? And other such gems.) I have started Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust at least twice in the last year, but she’s someone whose writing really affects me, and each time I have not been in the mental place to bear with it. But maybe this year, I will be.
  • So, almost five books in. Almost half a book earned. I’ve not missed buying a book yet – although I’ve added several to my wish list. I’m really enjoying discovering what I have hidden away on my kindle, although that does lead to the issue of my not knowing when or why I bought things. I dutifully record when and where I buy hard copies of books – that’s book historian basics, along with writing in the margins – and even writing this post, it has been frustrating not to have a clear sense of what drew me to the Jewell and the Hunt.

    I’ve spent quite a lot of time in book shops, even having very little intention of buying books. I spent several hours in Cambridge Waterstones in New Years Day, because my friends said it had a good cafe (it did). I went to several French book shops in Paris – my beloved Giberts, the BNF bookshop, FNAC – and I didn’t buy a book, even though I have a system in place for being in France…

    Ok. I have a confession to make. I did buy something in FNAC and Gibert, but I’m not sure they count as books.

    I am intrigued by how my period of study, the French Wars of Religion, is portrayed in different media, particularly in images, and I came across a series of BD – Bandes Dessinées – on this very subject. So I indulged in a few. Now, I think BD are very different to “regular” books – and the French seem to too, they’re in a different part of the shop in FNAC and in a separate building in Gibert Joseph. But they are definitely book-adjacent… I’m quite new to them, though, so I’d be interested in what more established BD fans think.

    I’m back home now, and back feeling excited when I look at my shelves and see all the exciting books in store for me. Although, I’m off for the weekend later today and with two train journeys and a lot of time on the tube ahead of me – what do I pick to take?!


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    Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Leeds. Interested in all things early modern, European, news & print-culture and higher ed teaching related.

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